The time to talk about the Bradley Center’s future is now

    My staff thinks it’s funny when I come back to the office grumbling about those stupid new “Luke” digital parking meters in downtown Milwaukee.

    Aside from the facts that they can’t be read when the sun is shining, they often reject perfectly good coins, they require twice as much time to plug as the regular meters, they waste paper and they do not account for the extra time the guy ahead of you already paid for, they’re perfectly fine.

    But I digress. Again.

    The City of Milwaukee is seeking your input on more important measures as it prepares to update its Downtown Master Plan, which was first devised in 1999. You can tell the city all about your downtown priorities and your dreams by taking the 2008 Downtown Plan Community Survey at planning/plans/downtown/.

    The 57-question survey asks you about your usage of downtown amenities, your transportation preferences, your shopping habits and the like. It asks if you think there’s enough parking downtown. It asks you to rank your priorities for future improvements. It asks whether or not you approve of using public subsidies for various things.

    But there’s one very important thing that is missing from the city’s survey. The words “Bradley Center” do not appear anywhere in the survey.

    Furthermore, and maybe even more disturbing, the Bradley Center also has no mention in the Milwaukee Department of City Development’s Downtown Plan Update Report  that was presented to the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee of the Milwaukee Common Council in January.

    Go ahead and search that document for the word “Bradley.” You won’t find it. Zilch. Bupkus. No mention whatsoever.

    The Bradley Center is a glaring omission on the city’s radar.

    Milwaukee, we’ve got a problem. As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, only three NBA facilities are older than the Bradley Center. Within the next 10 years – at the most – the Bradley Center will need to be replaced with a new arena, or the Milwaukee Bucks will leave town.

    The time to talk about this issue is now.

    Of course, at a time when our federal, our state, our county and our city governments are broke, who wants to discuss the notion of asking taxpayers to fork over $400 million or so to build a new arena for the Bucks?

    So, psychologically, we allow ourselves to put a Band Aid on the problem with the news that the Bradley Center Board will try to find some company somewhere that is willing to pay $40 million or so to put its name on an arena that is outdated and will soon be inadequate. Good luck, fellas.

    Seattle has been facing a similar situation. Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett bought the Seattle Supersonics and threatened to move the team to Oklahoma if Seattle didn’t build him a new arena.

    Earlier this month, at the 11th hour, a group of investors, including real estate developer Matt Griffin, Microsoft Corp. chief executive Steve Ballmer, Costco Wholesale Corp. president and CEO Jim Sinegal and wireless entrepreneur John Stanton, came forward with an offer to pay for $150 million of the $300 million needed to upgrade the KeyArena in Seattle and another $75 million to buy the team.

    Look around. It’s doubtful you’ll find that kind of coin around here. And even if we do, would building a new basketball arena be the best use of that money for Milwaukee?

    After all, our school system is a mess, we have terrible unemployment, poverty and crime in the inner city and we have no regional transportation system.

    There’s one other problem in the Milwaukee equation. The Bradley Center Board exists in its own silo, with its own budget, its own mission and its own administration. The Wisconsin Center District Board, which oversees the Midwest Airlines Center, the U.S. Cellular Arena and the Milwaukee Theatre, exists in its own silo, with its own budget, its own mission and its own administration.

    And ne’er the two shall meet. You even mention the word “merger” to people on the Bradley Board and the Wisconsin Center District Board, and you will get scolded by the parties. Trust me, I have done it.

    I recently had lunch with one business executive who does business with both the Bradley Center and the Wisconsin Center District. He expressed frustrations about the lack of cooperation and the redundancies between the two legal entities.

    “If this was Chicago, (Mayor Richard) Daley would lock them in a room and wouldn’t let them out until they had a mutually beneficial working agreement that made more efficient use of the downtown entertainment resources. He wouldn’t even let them out to (go to the bathroom) until they figured it out,” said the executive.

    The clock is ticking on the Bradley Center. If Milwaukee is to somehow replace it, the new building needs to not only be the home of the Bucks and a premier concert venue, but it also needs to directly serve the convention center.

    A Downtown Master Plan that ignores the future of the downtown entertainment district is woefully incomplete.

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